I’ve always preferred arcade racing games over racing sims. I can’t bring myself to care about Gran Turismo 5; no matter how many assists it might add for beginners. The subtitle “The Real Driving Simulator” will always be a turn off. The same goes for Forza, Need for Speed: Shift, and Grid. Thankfully, this year saw the release of three high profile arcade racers back-to-back-to-back: Split/Second, Blur, and Mod Nation Racers. While I admit that I haven’t yet played Mod Nation Racers, when I played the other two games I was so disheartened that I went crawling back to a perennial classic in a desperate attempt to reignite my love of the genre. I bought Burnout: Revenge, and was instantly hooked. Replaying it now, it’s obvious what sets Criterion’s masterpiece (personally I’m not a fan of the open world in Paradise) apart from its competitors. It’s a single and perfectly implemented mechanic: the ability to ram cars.
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Perhaps I’ve been playing too many games or maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep, but I find myself increasingly under the impression that some games are trying to send me hidden signals. Even some of the most straight-faced, large-budget, mass-appeal titles seem to be winking at me through a crack in the fourth wall.
Some games don’t bother to mask their self awareness. MadWorld takes a gleeful delight in forsaking any attempt to seriously justify extreme violence and instead makes a joke about the simple, lowbrow appeal of a brawler. DeathSpank is unabashedly comedic in its approach, and plays its very existence as a game for laughs. Traditional features that would usually sit “above” the game’s world like the quest log, inventory system, and mission structure are explicitly referenced, making it so that both the players and the characters are aware of them. Although the Metal Gear Solid series generally takes itself more seriously than the previous two examples, those games are legendary for their fourth-wall-breaking antics. Continuing with the metaphor of mischievous non-verbal body language, explicitly referencing the game’s CD case or discussing the console hardware within a serious story about war, technology, and morality is more akin to mooning the player than it is winking at them. While such shenanigans are entertaining, I’d like to take a closer look at some titles whose nods to the player are more subtle.
On paper, I would have said that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is the perfect game for me and that Super Meat Boy is my worst nightmare. As it turns out, that’s only half true. Brotherhood is definitely a game for me, and I’ve spent dozens of hours engrossed in it. But I was surprised by how much I enjoy Super Meat Boy, even through I have a notoriously bad habit of breaking expensive things when I get super frustrated with games. I snapped my Nintendo DS while playing Henry Hatsworth (the damned Nurse boss), which is a jump-puzzler like Meat Boy. On the other hand, I broke my new TV while playing Assassin’s Creed 2, albeit in the one part of the game that actually stymied me. Sadly, it is an otherwise pretty easy game (“How I Broke My TV Playing Assassin’s Creed 2”, Rick Dakan: Writer, Reader. Gamer, 30 November 2009).
I’m doing much better now, though, and have limited my angry reactions to a muted outcry of “Oh, come on!” followed by pausing the game and walking away for a few moments. I was expecting a lot of getting up from the couch, but Super Meat Boy does a great thing to short circuit the rage quit reaction: it throws you back into the challenge instantly. There’s no time to be angry for too long because you’re already trying again. Plus, the levels are so short that it’s a matter of seconds or maybe a minute at most to complete most levels once you figure out the trick. There’s even a great deal of pleasure to be found in a watching all those deaths on simultaneous replay when you finally find the path to victory.
Like the previously released DLC for Mafia II, Jimmy’s Vendetta, Joe’s Adventures largely consists of a series of more “arcade-style” missions set in the open world of Empire Bay. Also, like Jimmy’s Vendetta, most of these missions are only briefly backgrounded through textual introductions to mission objectives, mission objectives that mostly consist of perpetrating mayhem and violence in this fictional city that is the setting of Mafia II.
The extremely lean quality of the storytelling in that first DLC was very much to the game’s detriment, as Mafia II‘s strengths lie in its storytelling rather than in its fairly familiar third person shooting/driving gameplay. Indeed, I have argued that the limitations of Mafia II‘s open world actually complemented its story in many ways by emphasizing the ordered qualities of the life of Mafia soldier, Vito Scaletta (”Mafia II: the Boundaries of the Open World Experience”, PopMatters, 30 August 2010).
While many criticized the game for MAfia II‘s lack of “things to do” outside of the main storyline, in my mind Jimmy’s Vendetta laid bare the fact that side missions that may have been left on the cutting room floor to begin with may have been better left there. With only a loose sense of plot provided by few cutscenes and the aforementioned text-based intros alongside a pretty bland protagonist, the game suffered from redundancy and a bland “arcadey” style (”Mafia II: Jimmy’s Vendetta”, PopMatters, 22 September 2010). The game is more a series of side missions than a game interested in telling a story of any sort.
Whatever else may be said about Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, it’s an experience that sticks with you. I don’t ascribe this to good writing so much as a great hook with tolerable writing supporting it, but if there is one area where the narrative and characterization grabbed me utterly, and put me at odds with the reviews for the game that I had encountered, it’s in the development of the character Daily.
Daily is your protagonist’s love interest, a callous and aloof dungeoneer at the head of the field. Daily plans to leave the conventional basement dungeon circuit—and Verge—behind in pursuit of higher forms of artistic cruelty. But at no point is this character referred to by pronoun, male or female; instead, the text uses Daily’s full name, even in dialogue when such use would become increasingly stilted. Verge keeps an assortment of photos from Daily’s “modeling days” on his desk, and the poses and clothing that Daily is shown in emphasize the character’s androgyny. So it was striking to me to be brought into the game by reviews (such as this one) that refer to Daily rather consistently in the feminine.
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